Preview: Colorado at ASU

Arizona State extended their losing streak to four games with a 76-59 loss to No. 8 Utah on Thursday night. The Sun Devils, who are winless in Pac-12 play, are off to their worst conference start (0-4) since the 2006-07 season. With only a day to prepare for the next game, ASU will be back in action on Saturday with an afternoon tilt against the Colorado Buffaloes.

The Sun Devils (8-9,0-4 Pac-12) are mired in their worst slump of the season – and their offense remains MIA in conference play. Despite scoring 59 points against a stout Utah defense, many of which were scored in garbage time, Arizona State continues to struggle with their shooting. For the fifth consecutive game, the Sun Devils failed to shoot at least 41 percent from the field. However, it was the free throw discrepancy that eventually led to the Sun Devils’ demise. The Utes, who were the more aggressive team, had 30 free throw attempts – connecting on 23 of them. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils managed only 10 free throw attempts, converting six of them.

While his team continues to struggle, coach Herb Sendek is feverishly looking for a lineup that works. He used a new starting five against Utah – the fourth different starting lineup in the past seven games. The Devils managed to stay competitive on the boards and took better care of the ball (13 turnovers) against Utah, but it was not enough to overcome a well-balanced Utes team. However, a silver lining did emerge from Thursday’s loss. After struggling with their three-point shooting in the prior four games, the Sun Devils find regained the shooting form they possessed early in the season, connecting on 9 of 24 from beyond the arc. They will need some that three-point shooting to carry over to Saturday if they hope to end their four-game skid.

Colorado (9-7, 2-2) is also coming off a loss to a top-10 team, after losing 68-54 at No. 10 Arizona. However, the Buffs were not at full strength with two of their top scorers – Josh Scott (back) and Xavier Johnson (ankle) – sidelined with injuries. Both are considered to be game-time decisions for Saturday’s contest. Even when they have been at full strength this season, the Buffaloes have not lived up to preseason expectations. Colorado, who returned most of its rotation from last year’s tournament team, was picked to finish third in the media’s preseason poll. However, Colorado has struggled to find a rhythm and lost a handful of games to mid-major schools, including Hawaii, during the non-conference portion of their schedule.

Under head coach Tad Boyle, the Buffaloes have historically been a well-disciplined team who rebounds and plays tough defense. It is no different this season, with Colorado holding opponents to 62.1 points per game on 39.2 percent shooting from the field. On offense, they are led by senior guard Askia Booker (16.4 PPG), who is also among the league leaders in three-point shooting (42.5 percent). The Buffs have a big (and talented) frontcourt in Josh Scott, Wesley Gordon and Xavier Johnson. Their size advantage typically enables them to control the boards on a nightly basis. However, what Colorado does not possess is quality depth. After their starting five, there is a significant drop-off. If Scott and Johnson are not able to play on Saturday, the Buffaloes’ bench will have to pick up the slack. Colorado is still in the NCAA Tournament picture, which means they can’t afford a loss to Arizona State, who will likely finish below them in the standings.

Probable Starters:

G – Tra Holder (4.2 PPG, 2.5 APG) vs. Askia Booker (16.4 PPG, 3.1 APG)

G – Gerry Blakes (10.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG) vs. Jaron Hopkins (6.5 PPG, 2.7 RPG)

F – Shaq McKissic (10.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG) vs. Xavier Johnson (12.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG)

F – Savon Goodman (10.5 PPG, 6.6 RPG) vs. Wesley Gordon (7.1 PPG, 6.9 RPG)

C – Eric Jacobsen (10.1 PPG, 66% FG) vs. Josh Scott (13.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG)

Why ASU Can Win: There’s no way to slice it – the Sun Devils are not playing good basketball at the moment. However, they were also dealt a less-than-ideal scenario to begin conference play. They opened the Pac-12 schedule with three road games and two of their opponents were top-10 teams. Considering the circumstances, it’s not shocking they’ve started 0-4 in conference play. However, they have a golden opportunity to end their skid against an equally-streaky Colorado team. The Sun Devils’ student section, which set a single-game ASU student attendance record on Thursday night, will likely be out in full force on Saturday as well. The support from the “942 Crew” might help ASU recapture their winning ways.

Why Colorado Can Win: The Buffs’ strengths – defense, rebounding and free-throw shooting – allow them to stay competitive in most games. Even when their offense struggles, which is often, they find ways to grind out victories. Colorado excels in the half-court game and will do everything in their power to slow down the tempo. If the game is tight down the stretch, the Buffs also have a distinct advantage at the line. But the big question heading into Saturday’s game is the status of Scott and Johnson. If they are healthy enough to play, then ASU will have to stop one of the best scoring trio’s in the Pac-12. Booker, Scott and Johnson average a combined 43 points per contest.

Key Stat: Over the last five games, Arizona State shooting a woeful 38.7 percent from the field.

X-Factor: Eric Jacobsen. After making significant strides in this area early in the season, the junior center has once again been hampered by foul trouble. In the last two games, he was limited to 21 and 17 minutes respectively. The Sun Devils cannot afford to have their best low post player riding the bench with foul trouble. If they hope to get back into the win column, they’ll need Jacobsen on the floor.

Final Score Prediction: ASU 57, Colorado 54

*The game tips off at 2:30 p.m. MT and will be televised on the Pac-12 Network. Radio listeners can tune in to 98.7 FM to catch the game.

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